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Introduction

Alexander the Great was an ancient Macedonian ruler and one of history’s greatest military minds who—as King of Macedonia and Persia—established the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen. By turns charismatic and ruthless, brilliant and power hungry, diplomatic and bloodthirsty, Alexander inspired such loyalty in his men they’d follow him anywhere and, if necessary, die in the process. Though Alexander the Great died before realizing his dream of uniting a new realm, his influence on Greek and Asian culture was so profound it inspired a new historical epoch—the Hellenistic Period.

Alexander III was born in Pella, Macedonia, in 356 B.C. to King Philip II and Queen Olympias—although legend had it his father was none other than Zeus, the ruler of the Greek gods.

Philip II was an impressive military man in his own right. He turned Macedonia (a region on the northern part of the Greek peninsula) into a force to be reckoned with, and he fantasized about conquering the massive Persian Empire.

At age 12, Alexander showed impressive courage when he tamed the wild horse Bucephalus, an enormous stallion with a furious demeanor. The horse became his battle companion for most of Alexander’s life.

When Alexander was 13, Philip called on the great philosopher Aristotle to tutor his son. Aristotle sparked and fostered Alexander’s interest in literature, science, medicine and philosophy.

Alexander was just 16 when Philip went to battle the Byzantiums and left him in charge of Macedonia. In 338 B.C., Alexander saw the opportunity to prove his military worth and led a cavalry against the Sacred Band of Thebes—a supposedly unbeatable, select army made up entirely of male lovers—during the Battle of Chaeronea.

Alexander put his vigor and bravery on display, and his cavalry decimated the Band of Thebes.

In 336 B.C., Alexander’s father Philip was assassinated. Just 20 years old, Alexander claimed the Macedonian throne and killed his rivals before they could challenge his sovereignty.

He also quashed rebellions for independence in northern Greece. Once he’d cleaned house, Alexander left to follow in his father’s footsteps and continue Macedonia’s world domination.

Alexander appointed the general Antipater as regent and headed for Persia with his army. They crossed the Hellespont, a narrow strait between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara, and faced Persian and Greek forces at the Granicus river; victory went to Alexander and the Macedonians.

Alexander then headed south and easily took the city of Sardes. But his army encountered resistance in the cities of Miletus, Mylasa and Halicarnassus. Under siege yet not beaten, Halicarnassus held out long enough for King Darius III, the newest Persian king, to amass a substantial army.

From Halicanassus, Alexander headed north to Gordium, home of the fabled Gordian knot, a group of tightly-entwined knots yoked to an ancient wagon. Legend had it whoever unwound the knot would conquer all of Asia.

As the story goes, Alexander took on the challenge but was unable to unravel the knot by hand. He took another approach and sliced through the knot with his sword, claiming triumph.

In 333 B.C., Alexander and his men encountered a massive Persian army led by King Darius III near the town of Issus in southern Turkey. Alexander’s forces were greatly outnumbered in men but not in experience or the determination for revenge and to claim Persia’s great wealth, much of it plundered.

As it became clear Alexander would win the battle, Darius fled with what remained of his troops, leaving his wife and family behind. His mother, Sisygambis, was so upset she disowned him and adopted Alexander as her son.

By now it was clear that Alexander was a shrewd, ruthless and brilliant military leader—in fact, he never lost a battle in his life.

Next, Alexander took over the Phoenician cities of Marathus and Aradus. He rejected a plea from Darius for peace and took the towns of Byblos and Sidon.

He then laid siege to the heavily-fortified island of Tyre in January 332 B.C., after the Tyrians refused him entry. But Alexander had no navy to speak of and Tyre was surrounded by water.

Alexander instructed his men to build a causeway to reach Tyre. All went well until they came within striking distance of the Tyrians. Again and again, Tyrian forces thwarted Alexander’s clever attempts to gain entry, and he realized he needed a strong navy to penetrate their defenses.

He amassed a large fleet, finally breached the city’s walls in July 332 B.C. and executed thousands of Tyrians for daring to defy him; many others were sold into slavery.

After rejecting another peace offer from Darius, Alexander set out for Egypt. He was sidelined at Gaza, however, and forced to endure another lengthy siege. After several weeks, he took the town and entered Egypt where he established the city that still bears his name: Alexandria.

Alexander traveled to the desert to consult the oracle of Ammon, a god of supposed good counsel. Legends abound about what transpired at the oracle, but Alexander kept mum about the experience. Still, the visit furthered speculation Alexander was a deity.

After conquering Egypt, Alexander faced Darius and his massive troops at Gaugamela in October 331 B.C. Following fierce fighting and heavy losses on both sides, Darius fled and was assassinated by his own troops. It’s said Alexander was sad when he found Darius’s body and gave him a royal burial.

Finally rid of Darius, Alexander proclaimed himself King of Persia. But another Persian leader, Bessus (also thought to be Darius’s murderer), had also claimed the Persian throne. Alexander couldn’t let the claim stand.

After relentless pursuit by Alexander, Bessus’s troops handed Bessus over to Ptolemy, Alexander’s good friend, and he was mutilated and executed.  With Bessus out of the way, Alexander had full control of Persia.

To gain credibility with the Persians, Alexander took on many Persian customs. He began dressing like a Persian and adopted the practice of proskynesis, a Persian court custom that involved bowing down and kissing the hand of others, depending on their rank.

The Macedonians were less than thrilled with the changes in Alexander and his attempt to be viewed as a deity. They refused to practice proskynesis and some plotted his death.

Increasingly paranoid, Alexander ordered the death of one of his most esteemed generals, Parmerio, in 330 B.C., after Parmerio’s son Philotas was convicted of plotting an assassination attempt against Alexander (and also killed).

In 328 B.C., Cleitus, another general and close friend of Alexander, also met a violent end. Fed up with Alexander’s new Persian-like persona, a drunk Cleitus continually insulted Alexander and minimized his achievements.

Pushed too far, Alexander killed Cleitus with a spear, a spontaneous act of violence that anguished him. Some historians believe Alexander killed his general in a fit of drunkenness—a persistent problem that plagued him through much of his life.

Alexander struggled to capture Sogdia, a region of the Persian Empire that remained loyal to Bessus. The Sogdians found a refuge at the pinnacle of a rock and refused Alexander’s demand to surrender.

Not one to take “no” for an answer, Alexander sent some of his men to scale the rock and take the Sogdians by surprise. Supposedly, one of those on the rock was a girl named Roxane.

As the story goes, Alexander fell in love with Roxane on sight. He married her despite her Sogdian heritage and she joined him on his journey.

In 327 B.C., Alexander marched on Punjab, India. Some tribes surrendered peacefully; others did not. In 326 B.C., Alexander met King Porus of Paurava at the Hydaspes River.

Porus’s army was less experienced than Alexander’s, but they had a secret weapon—elephants. Even so, after a fierce battle in a raging thunderstorm, Porus was defeated.

One event took place at Hydaspes which devastated Alexander: the death of his beloved horse, Bucephalus. It’s unclear if he died from battle wounds or of old age, but Alexander named the city of Bucephala after him.

Alexander wanted to press on and attempt to conquer all of India, but his war-weary soldiers refused, and his officers convinced him to return to Persia. So Alexander led his troops down the Indus River and was severely wounded during a battle with the Malli.

After recovering, he divided his troops, sending half back to Persia and half to Gedrosia, a desolate area west of the Indus River.

In early 324 B.C., Alexander reached the city of Susa in Persia. Wanting to unite the Persians and Macedonians and create a new race loyal only to him, he ordered many of his officers to marry Persian princesses at a mass wedding; he also took two more wives for himself.

The Macedonian army resented Alexander’s attempt to change their culture and many mutinied. But after Alexander took a firm stand and replaced Macedonian officers and troops with Persians, his army backed down.

To further diffuse the situation, Alexander returned their titles and hosted a huge reconciliation banquet.

By 323 B.C., Alexander was head of an enormous empire and had recovered from the devastating loss of his friend Hephaestion (who was also reputed to be one of Alexander’s male lovers).

Thanks to his insatiable urge for world supremacy, he started plans to conquer Arabia. But he’d never live to see it happen. After surviving battle after fierce battle, Alexander the Great died in June 323 B.C. at age 32.

Some historians say Alexander died of malaria or other natural causes; others believe he was poisoned. Either way, he never named a successor.

His death—and the bloody infighting for control that happened afterwards—unraveled the empire he’d fought so hard to create.

Nonetheless, many conquered lands retained the Greek influence Alexander introduced—some cities he founded remain important cultural centers even today—and Alexander the Great is revered as one of the most powerful and influential leaders the ancient world ever produced.

Alexander the Great. Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Alexander the Great. Livius.org.
Alexander the Great of Macedon Biography. Historyofmacedonia.org.
Alexander of Macedonia. San Jose State University.
Bucephalus. Ancient History Encyclopedia.
The Battle of Issus. Livius.org.
The Sacred Band of Thebes, from Plutarch, Life of Pelopidas. Fordham University.
The Siege of Tyre (332 BCE). Livius.org.